Granite - One of the most popular choices for kitchen counters. The stone is quarried and cut into slabs. The slabs are then honed or polished. Honing results in a flat (not shiny) appearance that minimizes the appearance of the grain or texture of the stone. Much more popular is polishing, which yields a glossy finish that highlights all the pattern of the stone. Granite's appearance can be speckled, resemble wood grain, have large color spots or a blend. You may be able to find bargains if you are willing to purchase material that has been pre-cut and edged. The down side is limited variety and edge detail choices.
Pros - Granite has an elegant appearance many feel is unmatched by other materials. It is heat resistant and should stand up to hot dishes straight from the stove or oven. It is scratch resistant although it is advisable to use a cutting board (to avoid dulling knives). One FDA study found granite to be second only to stainless steel in bacterial resistance.
Cons - It must be resealed every year or two. It can crack. Acidic spills should be wiped up right away to avoid damage. It can stain, especially lighter colors. Fewer color choices than man-made materials. Expensive.
Marble - Similar to granite but not as resistant to heat, scratches, damage and especially stains. Marble is much more popular for bathrooms, walls and floors because its durability is better suited for those applications. Marble is not very resistant to acids and chemicals and thus is easily etched or dulled. Use of marble in a kitchen is usually limited to a baking counter or accent piece, such as on an island.
Pros - Truly beautiful material with more colors than granite. Graceful 'movement" in the patterns. Fairly hard and heat resistant.
Cons - Very prone to chemical etching and dulling. More easily damaged than granite. Very expensive. Fewer color choices than man-made materials. Requires periodic resealing.
Concrete - This material has become more popular in recent years. It can be stained in a myriad of colors and formed into unique shapes. The surface can be given a polished or honed finish. Many people mistakenly assume this material is inexpensive. However, the extensive labor required to prep, install and finish, make it one of the most expensive options.
Pros - A unique look not found in other materials. Can be stained in many colors. Can be formed into nearly any shape. Heat resistant but less so than granite.
Cons - Cracks and chips are more likely than with granite. Material can crack. Requires periodic resealing. Can absorb stains.
Soapstone - This non-porous metamorphic rock is quarried like marble and granite. Soapstone ranges from light grey with hints of blue in its natural state to dark with a hint of green when treated with mineral oil. The stone also contains light colored veining or speckling. The material earned its name because of its soapy texture or feel. Soapstone is non-porous and stain resistant, it is also heat resistant. Because soapstone contains talc, it is softer than granite and can be scratched and dented. However, scratches can be removed with hand sanding. Soapstone is maintained with the application of mineral oil, although some people prefer to leave it untreated. The oil is not absorbed, instead it promotes oxidation which causes the darkening. Even untreated soapstone will darken with use and age. Sinks are also available in soapstone, see our section about sinks for more information. Prices of soapstone counters are comparable to granite or somewhat higher.
Pros - Because soapstone is not as widely used as other material choices, you may consider its uniqueness an advantage. Soapstone does not stain and is resistant to heat; one reason why it has been used in high school chemistry labs. Soapstone is easy to maintain and repairs are easily made without the need for a professional. Soapstone develops a patina that gives it a characteristic look that some consider classic and warm.
Cons - Soapstone is usually maintained with regular applications of mineral oil. This maintenance is fairly easy but it must be done as frequently as every week during the first few months. You should not cut directly on soapstone as cutting will scratch the surface. Because of the softness of soapstone, chips or dents can result from dropped items like pan lids or canned food. Countertop edges are also prone to damage. Repairs are fairly easy and can be made with sandpaper and the reapplication of mineral oil. Because soapstone typically comes in six foot or shorter lengths, there may be more seams than with other material choices. When properly installed, visibility of seams is minimal. There are fewer countertop specialists who have experience with the installation of soapstone, this can result in imperfect installations as a direct result of inexperience with this unique material.
Stainless Steel - A very industrial look is achieved with the use of this material. It has a distinctive look that can become overwhelming if over-used. A very durable and heat-resistant product.
Pros - Can be fabricated for a seamless installation. Heat resistant, Stain resistant, Hypo-allergenic, high bacterial resistance. Easy to clean.
Cons - Expensive. Shows fingerprints. Easily scratched. Can dent. Tends to make a noisier kitchen.
Butcher Block - Typically made from maple or oak, these hardwoods provide a durable and warm surface. You can cut on a butcher block counter, but it will not resist all scratching. However, this surface has the advantage of being sandable, and sealable thus removing stains, cuts and other damage.
Pros - More repairable than most other surfaces. Has a warm appearance and can be colored to suit your taste. Easy to clean.
Cons - More easily damaged by stains, water and scratches. Cuts must be resealed. Improperly maintained surfaces can harbor bacteria.
Solid Surface - This material has the unique characteristic of having the same appearance all the way through its thickness. Therefore stains and scratches can be sanded out. It is available a wide variety of colors. Because it is man-made, it can be installed to appear seamless. It is only a little less expensive than granite. It comes in a wide variety of colors, which is the compelling reason, for many, to select it over granite.
Pros - Easy to clean, maintain and repair. Resists stains but not as well as granite. Wide variety of colors. A little cheaper than granite.
Cons - Some feel it has too artificial of an appearance. Does not resist hot pans well. Moderately expensive.
Engineered Stone - Made from 93% quartz and 7% resins, quartz is harder than granite. Because it is made from a natural stone, it very much resembles natural stone. The key difference is that its texture or pattern is a little more uniform. Quartz stone is sold under several brands names including Zodiaq, Cambria Quartz, Silestone, CeasarStone.
Pros - Very stain resistant. Virtually impervious to scratching from cutlery. Wide variety of colors. Has the appearance of natural stone, though more uniform. Does not require resealing. Easy to clean and care for.
Cons - Some people don't like the uniformity of the pattern. Fairly expensive. Does not resist heat well - always use trivets or other heat insulators.
Tile - Tiles come in a variety of sizes, shapes and colors. They can make a bold statement in a kitchen. A nice element of tile is that you can use inexpensive for most of your countertop and then select a few accent pieces to create a stylish appearance while keeping costs low.
Pros - Less expensive than most other options. Huge variety of tiles to choose from. Ability to mix and match tiles to create a truly custom design. Easy to clean. Resists heat from hot pans. Easy to repair if replacement tiles are kept on hand.
Cons - More prone to chipping. Grout can become dirty and requires more effort to maintain. Creates an uneven surface.
Laminate - A rainbow of colors and myriad patterns make laminate an attractive option. Coupled with its low price, laminate is a popular choice for kitchen counters. The material is fairly easy to install, maintain and clean. Unfortunately, damage is often difficult or impossible to repair (short of replacement).
Pros - Inexpensive. Huge selection of colors and patterns. Easy to install. Easy to clean.
Cons - Scratches, tears and damage to end and edges are difficult to repair. Replacing a section is possible, but only if matching material is available (fading of installed material may make a perfect match impossible).